The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3

thefataltree_coverAnd so, with the turn of the final page of The Fatal Tree, the Bright Empires series, the five-book epic Christian science fantasy by Stephen Lawhead, has come to an end. It’s hard for me to put into words the last installment of such an ambitious project. Part of me wants to give a series review, but I’m inadequate to do so since I read the five books as they released. What details have I forgotten?

And yet, merely reviewing The Fatal Tree feels inadequate. I wouldn’t expect anyone to start with this book, so a review of it as if it were a stand alone seems disingenuous. I think the best way to approach this daunting assignment is for me to give my random thoughts . . . randomly, as opposed to writing a formal review.

With that decided, here goes.

The Fatal Tree continues the story where The Shadow Lamp left off. The ley travelers suspect something serious has happened in the omniverse to upset the way things work. In fact, they believe that in all probability, an anomaly has taken place which has caused the omniverse to slow, leading ultimately to contraction, or the complete destruction of everything.

The main character, Kit, thinks he knows what this anomaly is—an event he witnessed at the Spirit Well. The problem is that a giant yew tree is growing over the place that would give him and his fellow questers access to the Well. Their job is to find a way to the Well and reverse the event in hope that they will also reverse contraction. The yew tree, however, emits huge amounts of energy, enough to kill anyone who touches it.

Some bloggers have mentioned that the quest for the Spirit Well is a shift from the original series quest—to find the Skin Map. The shift took place in book three, however, so from my perspective it would be odd to once again take up the search for the Skin Map. In The Spirit Well the focus becomes the object to which the map led and not the map itself. That Kit found the Well, saw it, and believes he can lead others to it, is a game changer. But problems of one kind or another continue to block him and the others.

Some bloggers also felt as if the high stakes didn’t ring true. I’d have to agree with this thought. The fact that I’m reading a book about the possibility of the end of everything obviously means (were it true and not fiction—a sensation novelists try to create) that the questers were successful which reduces the tension of the story.

Some CSFF tour participants felt the characters weren’t particularly deep or developed. I didn’t think so. Rather, I thought some of the minor characters like Lady Fayth made great changes; others showed their true colors more clearly; several relationships were furthered; but most importantly, an unlikely character changed and an unlikely character took heroic action.

I have to think that Mr. Lawhead’s use of the omniscient point of view may have been the reason some readers didn’t feel the story showed great character development. Without a doubt, it is a writing technique that doesn’t bring readers as close as first person or even close third person.

I was probably more aware of the omniscient voice in The Fatal Tree than I had been in the previous books. With this book wrapping up the many strands of an epic tale, omniscient voice may have been the only way to move from one set of characters in various locations and times to another. Perhaps all the movement drew more attention to the voice, however.

I did wonder from time to time if all the characters and all the movement were necessary. For instance, a good amount of time was spent on one character looking for another. When at last the connection was made, nothing came of it—that is, the encounter ended quickly and badly, and the questers were no closer to finding a way to the Spirit Well.

Along that line, there seemed to be a couple threads for which I saw no purpose. For example, at one point Mina, in trying to reach a certain spot by traveling along the ever less-stable ley lines, landed in a blizzard—with the Burly men’s wild cat. The animal ends up running off, dragging its chain, and nothing is heard about it again. At the same time, Mina sees a pool that doesn’t freeze over, though everything else is ice and snow. She steps into it and is transported to a different place and time.

A pool, I think. And they are looking for the Spirit Well. Might this be connected? A prehistoric version of what they’re looking for? Or a form of it before the yew tree grew? We never visited that pool again, and it didn’t have any apparent connection with the over all quest.

Another subplot had to do with one of Arthur Flinders-Petrie’s descendants, Douglas. He had stolen a book which was supposed to be important in the quest for the Skin Map. The book never factors into the resolution and Douglas has little to do with the main plot line.

In the same way the secret ley travelers organization, the Zetetic Society, which seemed so important in The Shadow Lamp, fades in importance in The Fatal Tree, receiving only a mention from time to time.

All this to say, I liked this final book of the series better for paring down the cast to the most significant characters. And still there was, what felt like to me, an utterly useless thread with Tony Carter and the scientists back in the US who were trying to corroborate that the omniverse was indeed about to contract. These scenes felt by and large, superfluous to me though I understand some found them of great interest and thought they gave the book a greater science fiction feel.

Well, yes, probably. Since I’m not a big science fiction reader, you can see why I felt those sections could have been left out!

I could go on. There’s so much to say about this book, and I haven’t touched upon the key theme—in fact, I don’t recall any of the tour participants discussing this theme either, which is a little disturbing.

Here’s the end before the Epilogue and the author essay in which this theme comes forward again:

“It looks like we’re just in time,” observed Cass, tapping the pewter carapace [of the Shadow Lamp].

“You know there’s no such thing as coincidence,” Kit replied lightly. “Right?”

“Yeah, right,” said Cass. “Let’s go home.”

No such thing as coincidence is a repeated phrase in this book, and it’s not by coincidence! 😉

This book also contained the greatest spiritual content of the five, and yet it left me wondering. What I had taken in earlier books to be symbols of new birth or of redemption were not. What they were, I’d like to think about some more. And I’d like to understand better what actually happened in the climax. I’ll be re-reading that chapter, most certainly.

All in all, I highly recommend the Bright Empires series to readers who love epic stories and appreciate the writing style made possible by the omniscient voice—Mr. Lawhead has full command of the language and is able to provide rich description of the varied places and eras about which he writes. This series is a unique blend of speculative and historical fiction. Readers who enjoy either genre or both will be swept up in the expansive tale.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a gratis copy of The Fatal Tree so that I could write my thoughts about the book in this post.

Review – The Skin Map

If you visited any of the blogs that participated in last week’s CSFF tour for The Skin Map, book one of the Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead (Thomas Nelson), then you’ve undoubtedly seen this book cover already. Still, it is so eye-catching, I thought it important to include with my review. From what I’ve read, apparently Mr. Lawhead drew the mapping symbols (the swirls, lines, and dots) himself because he wanted to get them just right. For me, that bit of information ups the intrigue factor. They need to be “right”? I suspect his map of the tangential universes and times is much the same to him as my map of Efrathah is to me—I need it to be “right” so I have the logistics in mind when I write my stories. But could it be more?

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me proceed with my review.

The Story. Against all possibility, Kit Livingstone meets his great-grandfather—who should be dead, or at least should be a one-hundred-twenty-something doddering old man. He is neither, and Kit doubts that Cosimo is who he claims to be. That is until he whisks Kit into another dimension—a parallel universe that more or less mirrors the history of the Home World. When Cosimo makes the effort to recruit Kit into helping him with some dimension-hopping adventure using mysterious ley lines, Kit refuses.

Returning home, he shows up late to his girlfriend, Wilhelmina’s house. When he explains what happened—only to meet her scorn—he feels compelled to show her that he did not imagine the experience. He returns with her to the street where he encountered Cosimo. However, as he is again whisked away, he and Wilhelmina are separated.

He rejoins Cosimo but insists they look for Mina. His great-grandfather agrees that it is imperative they find her, but the task is much harder than Kit realizes. Mina could be on any number of worlds, in any number of locations, at any number of times. Cosimo says they need the map that can guide them in their search.

And so begins the quest for the Skin Map.

To complicate matters, they are not the only people who know about the possibility of traveling ley lines from one dimension to another. A particular sadistic Englishman, Earl Burleigh, wants to gain possession of the map as well, and he doesn’t mind hurting those in his way.

Strengths. Stephen Lawhead has a distinct voice. His main character is all British and his opening setting is contemporary London, but quickly the story takes on an older, historical feel consistent with a Lawhead novel.

He employs an omniscient voice, with an unseen narrator, a device not common in contemporary fiction, though its use seems to be on the rise again. Wonderfully, he is a master at this point of view. From the beginning, I felt as if I was in the hands of a writer who knew what he was doing. When I was uncertain about something, I trusted that all I had to do was to keep reading, and in due time events would become clear. I wasn’t disappointed.

Mr. Lawhead is a describer. By putting in details that include smells and sounds, he creates a rich, tangible world. Yet the description does not ruin the plot. True, for much of the book, the pace is more leisurely, but there’s much to think about.

The central issue, after all, is the universe.

Some reviewers noted that none of the characters appear to be Christians and there doesn’t seem to be a central message about God. I tend to differ.

I believe there is a consistent sprinkling of thought-provoking, well-timed mentions of God, sometimes referenced as Providence. I believe Mr. Lawhead has laid the ground work for an exploration of God’s providential work versus Man’s freedom to choose his own path.

Weaknesses. One of the differences between an omniscient point of view and a third-person limited point of view is the fact that in the latter the reader can get much closer to the point of view character. The closer the writer draws to that character, the more the story feels as if it is happening to the reader.

I’ll be honest. I write using the third-person limited point of view, so I’m partial. I’m use to knowing characters more intimately. Consequently, I found the characters in The Skin Map to be somewhat distant. I didn’t care as much about their fate as I wanted to. I wanted to worry more, to feel more triumphant when success rewarded their efforts. I wanted to grieve when the occasion called for it. Instead, I felt interested on a more intellectual level, not on an emotional level.

Is that due to the point of view choice? Or is that the difference between the way men write and the way women want to read?

Recommendation. The Skin Map has a little something for everyone—mystical ley lines, apparent time travel, historical fiction, adventure, romance—it’s all there. The story is intriguing. Lawhead is masterful. The plot, while shifting from place to place and time to time, nevertheless follows a logical progression, with plenty of context clues to help the reader know how to navigate this multi-dimensional story. I highly recommend The Skin Map to all readers. It is a must read for Lawhead fans.

Please don’t forget to vote for this month’s Top Tour Blogger Award.

Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 6:09 pm  Comments (5)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – The Skin Map, Day 3

I personally will need to extend the CSFF Blog Tour because I’m still reading our feature, The Skin Map by Stephen R. Lawhead (Thomas Nelson). I’ve been feeling guilty about this because I know if I’d pushed, I could have finished reading it on time.

But it dawned on me today, I didn’t want to push to finish. There are some books that drive me on with a fast pace, tension, and suspense. The Skin Map quickly introduces tension, but I won’t say it’s fast-paced. In fact, I’d call it a leisurely pace that builds as the plot weaves and dodges.

I’ll stop there because I don’t want to give a review of merely the part of the book I’ve read.

Instead, I want to talk about something this book has made me think of—the incorporation of moral or spiritual themes in fiction. I’m including “moral” because of the example I’m going to give, but the application for The Skin Map is spiritual.

A few days ago, I read a review written by a Christian about a secular book. This person was positive about all aspects except one. The author had portrayed a homosexual relationship in a positive light, rendering it a normal part of culture, no different than the existence of varying eye colors. In the comments, sadly, this Christian review got hammered by people claiming the blogger was hateful.

But here’s the thing. The blogger (I assume, correctly) identified a moral position woven into the story contrary to this person’s individual beliefs. I applaud the blogger’s alertness to recognize this theme. As I see it, that’s the discernment we Christians need to have.

At the same time, I think we need to write the way the author of the book under review apparently wrote. The theme meshed with the story, was a part of the experience of one of the characters (who had two mothers), and was presented as ordinary.

I believe Stephen Lawhead has done much the same thing with Christianity in The Skin Map. None of the characters (so far) have made any pronouncements of faith. But woven throughout the book are lines about such things as prayer, attendance in church, schooling by Jesuits, Providence, and God Himself.

In addition, I realized some two hundred words into the book that Mr. Lawhead likes playing with names. Early in the story, readers learn the adversaries are known as Burley men. Some chapters later we meet a character named Earl Burleigh. Not coincidentally, he shows himself to be the Man behind the men.

Later, when a new character comes into the story, Lady Fayth, niece of Sir Henry Fayth, Lord Castlemain, I began to wonder if there isn’t significance in these names as well.

Granted, one can get carried away looking for meaning tucked here and there (see for example, some of the works about the Harry Potter books), but in a story, by a Christian, involving the fabric of the universe—time and space—I can’t help but wonder if readers looking for the obvious might not miss the subtle.

As I see it, Mr. Lawhead has established God in his story world (throughout time and across distance) by the fact that some of the character have an almost nonchalant acceptance of Him and by the suggestion through names that some characters may represent more than what they first appear to.

These are things I need time to think about. Without a doubt, I’d miss whatever subtleties and secrets might be in the story if I had pushed to finish.

My full review TBA. In the meantime, visit the blogs of others participating in the tour. You’ll find some excellent discussions and reviews. I’ll recommend Bruce Hennigan’s discussion of providence, Rachel Starr Thomson’s article about expectations, John Hileman’s comparison of the book to a corn muffin (don’t miss this one), and Steve Trower’s (who hardly ever gets books sent to him in the UK) review.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from Thomas Nelson.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Skin Map, Day 2

This month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, this accomplished author considers this work his most challenging.

And yet, surprisingly, I’ve seen a number of comments about this adventure story. Truly, there is adventure, and the story has intrigue from the opening page. But the page before the first page should get readers thinking more deeply right from the start.

I’m referring to the short epigraph:

Why is the Universe so big?
Because we are here!”

John Wheeler, Physicist

This short hint to the theme of the book, and probably of the series, tells me a couple things.

1) The story has some scientific underpinnings.
2) The implications are philosophical.
3) The philosophical implications will have theological ramifications.

First a little about the science. The physicist Mr. Lawhead quoted is credited with coining the terms black hole and wormhole, among others. He is known for his work in general relativity, including the theory of gravitational collapse.

He also postulated an interesting theory about Man’s relationship to the universe, now know as his ‘it from bit’ doctrine. Information, he believed, was fundamental to the physics of the universe—”all things physical are information-theoretic in origin.”

It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.
– John Wheeler, as quoted in Wikipedia’s article “John Archibald Wheeler” (emphases mine)

I don’t pretend to understand all this science or a tenth of the ramifications of it. I’m not sure I understand why Mr. Lawhead chose the quote he did to introduce his story.

I do know these are big issues—the origin of the universe and it’s vastness; our place in it; our understanding of it.

As a Christian, I can’t arrive at issues regarding the universe without asking, What about God? Where does He fit into the equation?

If, for example, I was to answer the question posed in the epigraph, Why is the universe so big? I would most certainly not answer the way Mr. Wheeler did. I would probably say, Because God is bigger still.

What, then, will a story be that begins with the bigness of Man instead of the bigness of God?

These are questions I have yet to answer, but my guess is, all will not become clear until the final page of the Bright Empires series, and then we might have more questions to ponder than answers.

In the meantime, we have an adventure to enjoy.

Be sure to check out what other bloggers on the tour are discussing. Fred Warren has an interesting article on tattoos (no kidding). Author Matt Mikalatos explains the origins of ley lines, a key component in The Skin Map. John Otte discusses the opening of The Skin Map and expounds on what makes a good opening. Don’t forget Robert Treskillard‘s contest and the autographed copy of The Skin Map he’s offering as the prize. For other reviews and articles, check the links at the end of Day 1.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Skin Map, Day 1

The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series, is the latest release by vaunted fantasy/historical fiction writer Stephen Lawhead. The author himself describes the series as the most challenging he’s ever undertaken, largely because of the complexities. The work is a unique cross between science and fantasy.

Above all, Mr. Lawhead remains one of the great storytellers of our day. He knows how to create interesting characters, build tension, generate suspense.

Because The Skin Map is such a unique undertaking, the book trailer might be the best way to introduce the premise.

And now a bite of the actual writing for you to chew on:

The main room of the inn was bustling with a brisk trade, but they found a table and ordered three jars of the best. When the ale came, the publican brought a bowl of roasted and salted cobnuts. Sir Henry raised a toast, and they all quaffed down the sweet ale. “As soon as we’ve finished here,” Cosimo announced, “we’re off to fetch the map.”

“And then?” wondered Kit.

“Then we shall determine the best course of action from several that are open to us,” answered Cosimo. “If my hunch is correct, we’ll be heading off to one of the nearer leys—the Cotswolds are full of them, and there are several within striking distance.”

They drank in silence for a while, then Kit said, “Tell me, is it always the past we visit? I mean do you ever travel to the future?”

“The absolute future?” His great-grandfather shook his head of wavy white hair. “No. Never. At least I’ve never heard that it was possible. Now, the relative future—well, that’s something else altogether.”

“Come again?” asked Kit.

“See here,” Cosimo said, “the relative future is what Sir Henry would visit if he were to travel to London in, say, 1920.”

“The past for us, but the future for him. It’s relative to where you started from. I get it.”

“Precisely,” agreed his great-grandfather. “But no one—not Sir Henry, myself, you, or anone else—can go beyond the present time of the Home World. That’s the absolute future, and no one can travel there.”

“Why not?”

Cosimo glanced at Sir Henry, who frowned. “We don’t know,” he confessed. “We’ve tried, but it does not seem at all possible. We don’t know why.” He paused, then added, “It is a question that has been troubling me for years.”

“We have theories,” prompted Sir Henry.

“Yes, and the simplest explanation is that the future hasn’t happened yet.”

“Which is why they call it the future, I suppose.”

(from The Skin Map, pp. 150-151)

Be sure to visit the other blogs participating in the tour (a check mark links to an article that has already been posted). Note in particular that you can win an autographed copy of The Skin Map from Robert Treskillard.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from Thomas Nelson.